Lately I’ve been doing a lot of digging deep, engaging in the sort of internal dialogue that raises questions such as What is my purpose on this great green planet and What is this here, and now? These kind of grapplings leave one with an ache in the throat and feelings of hollow weightlessness similar to those experienced while reading L’Etranger in AP French class. So when I’m in this place, there is only one thing to do to ground me again: I make macaroni and cheese.
Now, I’m a fan of Annie’s Natural mac ‘n’ cheese, salon.com articles notwithstanding. I’ve packed it high into the Sierra Nevada and carried it out to feast upon while visiting Pt. Reyes’ foggy beaches. I’ve sent boxes away in care packages to Thailand and Norway, and I think I even brought one or two with me last year to Reykjavik. I love the purple box truly — truly — but nothing beats a fresh, homemade batch of the melty, swirly, cheesy stuff.
My wonderful friend Jessie and her wonderful mother make a version I sampled happily in college. At one of our Thursday night dinner parties, she grated up a pound of supermarket cheddar, drizzled it over macaroni, and mixed up a panful. On top went a generous sprinkling of breadcrumbs, and the whole mess was baked in the oven until the cheese oozed over the crispy bread and the group collectively moaned with anticipated pleasure.
My own is a little less orange, and a little quicker to prepare. Really, it is a kind of cacio e pepe, though it’s rather light on the pepe and rather heavier on the Parmesan . What I do is: boil up some curly pasta (I like Bionaturae) until al dente. I drain the pot, and reserve the cooking water — this is key. I melt a tiny bit of butter and toss the pasta back into the pot, then add Parmesan and drips of the water (still hot) in equal measure until the cheese is melted and clinging to the pasta’s curves. The reserved water, amazingly, helps bind the cheese to the macaroni; I have learned that it may be used in place of broth as a base for soups as well.
If you insist on introducing a healthy angle to this pile of fat and carbohydrates, delicious accompaniments include a simple organic salad, or sauteed broccoli. But really, why would you want to take away from the almost sinful pleasure of this melted cheesy goodness by eating greens?
M.F.K. Fisher wrote in one of her volumes of a simple meal she loved serving to guests. It involved lots of spaghetti, cheese and butter, and the especial beauty of it was that she threw it together as she was serving it. The hot strands melted the cheese, the salt and pepper provided enough seasoning that nothing else was necessary, and her guests always raved over it. When I read her account it resonated with me, not only because it is so similar to my own little version of macaroni and cheese, but because it was so easy and involved so few ingredients.
Sometimes, all we need to do is simplify. This dish — comfort food at its most basic — embodies that wish to pare down. All that really matters is that the water is hot enough to slick the ribbons of pasta thoroughly with melted cheese, and that there is just the right amount of salt. The first bite can be transcendent.
From four ingredients comes a thing of beauty. And that has its own heft, and weight — and is absolutely soul-satisfying.
Homemade Mac and Cheese
1 cup pasta, cooked until slightly firm (or to taste, if you prefer it more mushy)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 tb. butter
1-2 tb. milk (or substitute the cooking water)
After the pasta is cooked, drain and reserve the water. Melt the butter on low in the pot and put the pasta back in. Stir until pasta is coated. Add the cheese by tablespoons-full, alternating with tablespoons of the reserved cooking water. Stir until cheese is fully incorporated and melted, adding water to reach desired consitency. Add the milk, stirring over low heat until combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.